How ‘TURNING RED’ Got Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell To Write Boy Band Songs

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

When TURNING RED was in its infant stages, director Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins knew they needed a specific sound on their soundtrack to perfectly capture the era in which their animated feature takes place. Centered on an puberty-stricken girl named Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), who turns into a giant red panda when she’s emotionally overwhelmed, it’s set in the height of the early aughts, when boy band mania reigned supreme in the hearts of pre-pubescent girls. So when it came time to create their special group of heartthrobs, the pair found it thoroughly enjoyable to revisit their memories of their favorites and what being fans meant to them.

At the film’s recent long lead press day, Shi shares,

“Boy bands represent this first foray into adolescence into music, fashion, pop culture. They offer a safe, soft non-threatening reaction to subjects like love and relationships and sex. We really wanted to pay tribute to this cultural phenomenon and not just make fun of it – make fun of it a little bit, but mostly honor it.”

Shi’s creation is the 5-membered boy band named 4*Town – and they are all adorable, embracing the hearts of millions of teen and tween girls across the globe.

“For Mei, they represent to new and alluring world that is the total opposite of her mom and home life – a world she’s been pushing away until the red panda arrives and brings her passions to the surface.”

Similar to real world inspirations, each of 4*Town’s members has a special traits and functions within the group. Says Shi,

“When we were designing, we definitely had each boy’s purpose and their personality kind of pinpointed. We have Robaire, who is Mei’s crush. He’s the leader of the group – the main vocalist. He will probably go on to have a very successful solo career. We pinpointed the cute one, Tae Young, the sporty one, Aaron T. He’s also the goofy one. Jesse is the pretty one. They all kind of have their own personalities and their own strengths.”

MOTHER, PLEASE! — Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Turning Red” introduces 13-year-old Mei Lee and her mother, Ming. They’ve always been close, so when Mei begins showing interest in typical teenager things—like boys, for example—Ming is a little (or a lot) tempted to overreact. Featuring Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Mei Lee, and Sandra Oh as the voice of Ming, “Turning Red” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on March 11, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Collins had the pleasurable task of marrying her filmmaking team’s homage to Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, O-Town and 98 Degrees with the skills and sound of modern-day songwriters that will grab attention. Enter hitmakers Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.

“I have 3 teenagers at home and [at the time] Billie Eilish was relatively unknown, but adored by my kids in 2016. Her song ‘Ocean Eyes’ was playing on repeat in our house. When we started to think about songwriters who could capture the early 2000’s sound and bring something fresh to it, Billie’s name came up. After researching with the Disney Music Team, we got a better sense of Billie and Finneas and their sensibilities and style and figured why not start with our dream choice.”

She continues, explaining they sweetened their pitch with a special item.

“We weren’t sure they’d take the meeting. So we sent them something in advance. We made a physical scrapbook like something Mei would make. It had doodles and drawings and fan art and fake ticket stubs. Basically it was a glimpse inside Mae and this fictitious  boy band. We guess it worked because Billie and Finneas agreed. Their songs truly brought 4*Town to life. Phineas actually sings as one of the band members. He’s Jesse.”

Though not a musical, there’s a lot of music woven into the narrative, from Ludwig Göransson’s score to the 4*Town songs. The talented siblings wrote 3 original songs and were given a few specific stylized tracks to nail. Collins elucidates,

“To give them inspiration, we said, ‘We want a song that’s a confidence booster, a song that you sing to one of your friends when their feeling down. And then we want the hit song that everybody knows – this is the one you can’t get out of your head and belt out at full volume in the car when it comes on the radio. And then we wanted a love ballad, a song that makes you feel like you just had your heart broken. They more than delivered.”

Since animation is a collaborative effort, Collins says their 3 year production was able to bend and flow with any necessary revisions that arose – one major element being 4*Town’s shifting role played in the narrative and how that breakthrough opened the doors up to greater thematically resonance.

“The rise of 4*Town from draft one to draft-or the-the first set of reels to our second set of reels was a big kind of shift. We kind of played around with it initially as a fun little kind of side gag, or a specific story point in the first set of reels. And then kind of fell in love with the idea of there being this kind of animated boy band and started to really talk about the fact that mistakes when you’re 13 can feel small if you’re just kind of objectively looking at them, but when you’re 13 years old, they feel huge. There was something really great about making mistakes for these girls, being very relatively small. They just want to go see a boy band concert.”

She clarifies further,

“This whole movie is about them getting to that concert against the backdrop of obviously this kind of magical puberty metaphor that we had too. The more we just played around with it, kind of getting a little bit smaller in terms of stakes, the more fun it felt, and the more real it felt.”

TURNING RED begins streaming exclusively on March 11 on DisneyPlus.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.